Goodbye Mike, see you on the other side brother. by Nasri Atallah

“I am dying of cancer. And, I am the happiest I have ever been. If I can be happy, you can be happy, too.”

— MIKE VAN CLEAVE

I met Mike over drinks at Stollys in the Marais. If I had to guess, I’d say that there were a couple of years there where most people who knew Mike would say they’d met Mike over drinks at Stollys. Meeting Mike was a big deal. I’d heard a lot about him. When my wife, Nour, lived in Paris, he was one of her closest friends. And Stollys was their dive. I like barflys. So I liked Mike instantly. Mike was big. Not just physically either, his presence was big. Mike was my kind of guy. He lived in Paris, spent ten years in NYC, grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and was born in Kentucky. As he used to say, he started “more than a few businesses”, a coffeehouse, a vintage car restoration company, some internet stuff. He taught at Insead.

You got pulled into his orbit. At that point, Nour and I had only been dating for a few months.. Meeting Mike made me love her even more. If this was the kind of person who got her through her years in Paris, there were plenty of wonderful things I had yet to discover about her.

A few months later, Nour told me Mike was going to die. He has been diagnosed with a form of cancer so bad the doctors gave him weeks. A year at most.

Mike being Mike, decided he wasn’t going to go out with a whimper. He decided to go out in style and throw one last big party. He coralled his drinking buddies from across the years and the continents. A Facebook group emerged, then an event. The Fete de Mike was on. In January, in a house in Fontainebleau, over a hundred of Mike’s friends showed up from New York, Beirut, Bangkok, Kentucky. We drank and ate for three days straight. I danced so hard outside in the rain that I woke up the next day with mud in my nostrils. When I got there, I knew no one, but by the end up of those three days I had met dozens of amazing people. Some of them who would become true friends.

Those three days gave me an inclination of how I’d like to live my life. If I could end it with so many wonderful people around me, I’d be happy.

Mike was also happy after those three days. Happy enough he decided he wasn’t going to die. He went onto an experimental drug courtesy of France’s free healthcare system. He told me once that his insurance premium for the same kind of treatment in the US would have bankrupted him.

As Mike realized he didn’t have long left, he shed a lot of what wasn’t important. He focussed on relationships. They were the only thing he’d take with him till the end, and the only thing he’d leave behind. Initially, I think part of me always kept Mike at a safe distance. I loved him, but I met him knowing he wouldn’t be around. It says more about me than anything else. I’m terrified of things I can’t control. So I tried to preempt and control the fallout from a friend’s death. But, like I said, Mike pulls you into his orbit. And there is no safe distance from a force like Mike.

After the initial Fete de Mike, there were a few more parties. We were celebrating that he was still around, but we were also celebrating all our own friendships that we’d created amongst ourselves. We pieced together  new relationships from the off-cuts of Mike’s.

This year Mike had to cancel the party. When Nour and I visited him in Paris in his apartment, he said he was in pain and couldn’t piece together the strength to go through with the party. He was working on his podcast, Life Lessons from a Dead Guy. We’d had a few conversations about it over the previous months. It was a project he cared about very deeply, a documentation of the things he learned while he was sick, and of the friendships he treasured.

Last time I came over alone with some packs of the American Spirits. We ordered some burritos. We talked about the podcast. And Nour, who couldn’t come because of visas and borders. I could tell he wasn't well. He was in so much pain. Three times his eyes rolled in a way that made me feel the life leaving him. I felt I was saying goodbye to him, and when I left that day I hugged him tighter than I ever had.

On Wednesday Mike left us for good. We didn't get to say goodbye properly because Nour is waiting for another visa and borders are a kind of hell. In a way I'm happy though. Mike is this big gregarious bear hug of a man. It would have destroyed me to see him any other way. I’m not built strong enough for that.

What Mike has left behind is a group of friends, family really, like no other. We’re all making plans to see each other and celebrate his life. There’s already been a memorial drinks in his honour at Stollys, sun piercing through the windows.

If you knew Mike and want to listen to him again, I’ve been relistening to this podcast. And if you didn’t know him, listen to it as well. You’ll learn a thing or two about letting go of meaningless things, and cherishing important things. Mike was important, and the world is a bit less of a party for him having left it.

Goodbye Mike, we’ll see you on the other side brother.

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Lebanon's Creative Industries: What the McKinsey Report Says About The Sector's Future by Nasri Atallah

The now-famous McKinsey report on Lebanon’s ailing economy has been unceremoniously dumped on the Ministry of Economy’s website, six months after it was delivered to the government. It is a gargantuan 1274-page document that isn’t the kind of thing a normal human being can make sense of, because, well, it’s a management consultant’s fever dream. A PowerPoint deck packed edge to edge with data. The document even has the “Internal” watermark all over it, and is riddled with typos. This should have been released in a digestible format, and I imagine journalists are now doing what the government should have done and make it understandable to us.

Since it’s Sunday and I am bored and restless, I went through it. I tried to understand what I could about my specific field, paying specific attention to the sections on the Creative Industries. I figured I’d distill some key elements from it for anyone who works in the industry or has worked in it. While I’m now based back in London, I am always going back and forth to Lebanon. I never want to lose my connection to its thriving creative scene and I hope to be able to base some of my projects there. I recently shot the pilot for a six-part documentary series called The New Arabs there with Emmy-nominated Montreal-based production house Noble Television, and it was an amazing experience. It is such a rich place for creative projects.

THE DIAGNOSIS

You can read better overall explainers of the intention of the document elsewhere, but essentially it calls for a Vision 2025 and a Vision 2035 to be established for Lebanon, to get it out of its economic and social mess. It focuses the approach on five sectors: Agriculture, Industry, Tourism, Financial Services, Knowledge Economy & Diaspora. The Creative Industries are part of the Knowledge Economy, along with tech, outsourcing, education & healthcare. I will be focussing only on the Creative Industries.

The Sector

“Lebanon’s media & production sector comprises of  around 400 companies and employs around 4.5% of the total labour force of the country across the full spectrum of sub-sectors

Lebanon’s media sector involves television broadcasting, advertising services, production and post-production, publishing, music and digital media.

The overall advertising spending across all mediums, serving as a proxy for the overall media industry, has been stagnant at ~150 USD Mn year. However digital media as well as production witnessed a staggering growth.”

Film & Television

“Investment in film production has been growing at ~100% p.a. to go from a mere 350K USD in 2009 to reach ~11 USD Mn in 2014. Lebanon is a regional leader on production and post-production, exporting content to most of the Arab world. More recently, film production has witnessed a marked growth. Total yearly number of movies produced increased from 4 in 2004 to 31 in 2014, corresponding to a 22% p.a. growth.

There are currently around 97 production & post-production companies working at an average of 1000 shooting days per year. They are involved in content creation for local as well as regional television channels with an emphasis on entertainment, drama series, reality shows and talk shows. Hits such as Superstar, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars and Arab Idol, make Lebanon the market leader in entertainment shows in the region. The Voice Arabia’s 2014 final episode, attracted an estimated 100 million viewers from the Arab Region.”

A lot of the data above seems to stop in 2014, which is a shame. Anecdotally, I’d guess the numbers are even better now for film, given the massive mass-market low-quality output from Falcon and Eagle films, as well as the art house offerings at the other end of the spectrum from directors like Ziad Doueiri and Nadine Labaki. There is also an interesting middle ground developing, with films like Shady Hanna’s Khabsa or Mir-Jean Bou Chaya’s Very Big Shot. I think the real opportunities for the sector are in mass-market high-quality offerings such as those two, that take full advantage of Lebanon’s storytelling opportunities and craft great genre pieces. On TV front, I think there’s a risk a lot of production for the Gulf could get moved to the Gulf, as the industry matures and the cost of producing in Beirut stops being an incentive.

Positive Takeaways

“The sector has all the success factors mainly: The access to talent, Lebanon’s natural endowment (e.g. the scenery for shooting movies), the ease of getting a license for shooting movie scenes”

I think these are pretty simplistic takeaways. I think there’s an energy to Lebanese creativity that is really special and goes beyond talent. There’s an ability to problem-solve and think on your feet that I think creatives don’t always have in systems with more supportive structures. I think it’s essential to keep that spirit, even as we professionalize. Pretty widespread multilingulalism is also a huge advantage, opening up markets far and wide, and should allow us to diversify from Arab markets. The opening up of global distribution through streaming services means if we create Lebanese cultural products with a global thinking, we can have the next La Casa De Papel on our hands.

Problems

“However, the sector lacks the right government support and incentives. Fragmented ecosystem with no central agency/body responsible of the industry, leading to the lack of a formal sectorial plan & strategy with clear responsibilities. Outdated legislations and regulations (e.g. visa requirements for foreign actors). Lack of formal media zones with proper incentives (e.g. tax breaks)”

These are all very real problems. The lack of a central agency means there’s no plan for the industry and its future. Like much else in Lebanon, it relies on personal private initiative. When things work, the country takes credit, when they don’t it looks away. This is fundamentally a problem, especially in film and TV where the timeframe is long-term and investments are massive. There needs to be direction. It’s less of an issue in music creation. However it is an issue in importing live music: the hoops concert organizers have the jump through to get artists (extremely expensive) visas are prohibitive and completely mess with he economics of even thinking of bringing in foreign acts.

SUCCESS STORIES

The report lists some success stories in the arts and culture field. I’ve selected a few and added my thoughts as to why I think they’re interesting and important.

The Wanton Bishops - I was happy to see the band listed as a successful example of a music export. I was involved with the band as their manager in the early days and it was a very intentional strategy to make sure they had a huge audience in Europe. We built tours in Turkey first, then France then across Scandinavia then eventually the rest of the continent (and the US!). It was always important that the band was from Lebanon but never restricted to it. And it worked. Hell, they even played Glastonbury! I think what they did can be replicated for other up and coming artists in a variety of musical genres.

Mashrou Leila - For me, this is the defining success story in terms of cultural export and soft power. By way of a disclaimer, the band are friends of mine, but I promise I’m being objective here. I have seen them perform in about 5 or 6 different countries and the response is always the same. Rapturous. They are a magnificent and professional band, and they are amazing cultural ambassadors with a light touch. ie they don’t go on about Lebanon, they are just Lebanese. And that is enough to give faith in our industry, and open up new audiences to our country. And it puts us on the map with major festivals, music video directors, etc. I saw them at Field Day in London last year, right before Father John Misty and Bjork. They can do for Lebanon what Bjork did for Iceland. Define our idiosyncrasies effortlessly.

The Insult & Capharnaum - While these are very different films by very different directors, they show that a pattern is emerging. We are making great films and audiences around the world are receptive. The Insult garnered an Academy Award nomination, and Labaki’s film is nominated for a Golden Globe. This is no mean feat for such a small industry, and it creates a momentum for young directors to come through with their own projects (and could potentially, eventually open up financing as people believe more in our productions). The global appetite also means these films can thrive, in a way they wouldn’t be able to in the small Lebanese market.

KEY CHALLENGES FOR THE CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM

  • Fragmented representation of the ecosystem in the government

    • While several cultural and creative industries are represented in either the Ministry of Information of Ministry of culture. some are not represented at all in the government (e.g. fashion, design, digital media)

  • Educational gap in CC industries

    • A gap exists between the need and the availability of trained technical talent, with the gap being filled by lower wage skilled non-Lebanese labor

  • Lack of needed governing laws

    • Pending approval of enabling legislations to the CC industries (e.g. IP rights, secured transactions law)

    • Lack of security for people employed in the sector especially given the precarious nature of the business

  • Difficulty accessing external markets

    • Limited local market

    • No structural support for export of services or access to external markets

  • Limited access to financing

    • Perceived high risk of CC industries leading to difficulty in access to finance

    • Limited risk-management from the banking sector in creative industries

Looking at the list above — directly lifted from the report — I can’t help but agree across the board. With no central authority creating a coherent environment for the industry, it’s difficult to create momentum. Everything depends on how long individuals can keep their spirits up and battle through the difficulties inherent to the sector. Of all of the problems, I think limited access to financing is the most pressing, in part because it solves a lot of the other ones. In the current climate, very few banks or investment funds are willing to invest in sectors that don’t have a proven track record in Lebanon. This means films often have to go to foreign funds and grants for financing, which can end up skewing narratives (and creating huge time-lags between projects). The French for example, are notoriously fond of a certain type of narrative coming out of the country. Who will fund the first great Lebanese heist film or romantic comedy with no mention of politics and misery? Certainly not the CNC. Similarly in music, there is no middle ground between local hyper-indie mini-labels and the massive pop factories, which is a shame because that’s where most commercially viable and exportable music would thrive.

THE RECOMMENDATIONS

The document recommends two specific areas to work on to make the Creative Industries part of a sustainable vision for Lebanon’s economy (which I’ve pasted below).

Take a bet on specific Creative & Cultural industries (2-3 industries)

Countries with a distinct creative edge have overarching strategies tackling all aspects of the creative & cultural industries (e.g. Creative Britain), while taking a bet on specific niches (e.g. TV production, Video Games, Arts & Music for the UK - Movie Industry for Morocco). As such, Lebanon should select 2-3 creative industries and incentivize their growth through:

  • Organizing round tables with experts in the field to understand potential of the different creative industries (e.g. Fashion, film industry).

  • Devising a mechanism to shortlist 2-3 creative industries to focus on, with high job creation and economic contribution potential

  • Launching a joint public-private sector initiative to support the selected sector (e.g. film industry), through either soft loans, investment attraction, support in marketing & promotion & distribution

Invest in creative & cultural industries infrastructure

Selection of creative industries to focus on should be accompanied by the development of built-for-purpose infrastructure for the sector, through:

  • Conducting round-table discussions to understand infrastructure requirements and gap areas within the selected creative industries (e.g. recording studio, theatre, exhibition centres)

  • Develop business case for each project through understanding current and projected demand

  • Solicit potential investors' interest to invest in the required infrastructure projects – Understand investors' requirements and concerns to invest, tackle the concerns accordingly by prioritizing quick-wins

I agree with much of this, with the exception of the emphasis on “quick wins” at the end. Whether you’re investing in film, TV, music, fashion, etc none of these industries are likely to see quick wins from an investor point of view. There might be great success stories, but investors will not be seeing bonkers returns quickly. With savings account rates in Lebanon at 8% on the dollar and 16% on the lira, it’s very hard to make any sector seem appealing. So I think it’s best to manage expectations accordingly. There are very interesting opportunities in media and art, but investors have to also care about the mission and vision underlying it. Otherwise you’ll attract the wrong kind of investor. There is no massive scalability on this end of the Knowledge Economy, leave that fantasy to the tech bros.

SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

I can’t speak to the rest of the document (I mean it’s 1200 pages, and it’s Sunday afternoon and I have hoovering to do), but the section on the creative industries seems well thought-out to me, as someone who has spent 7-8 years in that segment of the economy and hangs around a lot of fellow Lebanon creatives. The challenges and opportunities seem to be well identified, and the solutions certainly seem like a good place to start. But the nagging thought I had throughout my reading was: none of this will ever happen. And I realize this is a terrible thought to have. I don’t want to admit defeat before we’ve even tried anything. And the solutions offered up aren’t that difficult. So I’ll end on this note: if you’re in this industry and want to continue this conversation, give me a shout. I’m abroad, but I want to bring creative projects to Lebanon. I care about that. Let’s all start a conversation and perhaps when Lebanon finally has a government (euh btw it’s been 8 months guys, get your shit together), we can form a few delegations to go have a chat with a list of requests from the relevant ministries. This document is a good place to start a conversation, so let’s have it.

The Bullet List #30: Arab Noir, Family Feuds, Nevada Mobsters, Free Speech Fantasies and More by Nasri Atallah

My recommendations for the best television, film, writing, audio — and other assorted bits of culture — that I've come across recently. 

The Best Television

Get Shorty

Based on the much-loved Elmore Leonard novel — already adapted into a film in 1995 — this is a really fun take on the material. Chris O’Dowd is charm on legs, and Ray Romano has become something of a delicacy in this second act of his career. It can be a bit too violent at times, and there’s so gratuitous sex (it’s on Epix, after all), but it is a ton of fun to be with these deeply unlikeable but very loveable characters for a whole season of television. 

Grace & Frankie

I mean, this is just delightful television. Who doesn't want to spend hours on end with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin? The premise is that the titular Grace & Frankie find out that their husbands have been cheating on them, with each other. They've now decided to get divorced and live as gay men in their seventies, openly for the first time. The show deals with where this places Grace and Frankie having to rebuild their lives from scratch. It is an endearing portrayal, played for laughs, co-created by Martha Kauffman of Friends fame. It also look at some interesting aspects of life as a 70something, and how it's never too late to start exploring who you are. 

Succession

This is my favourite show in a very long time. It follows the power struggles at the heart of the Roy family as the patriarch seems set to retire as CEO of a media conglomerate. Created by Jesse Armstrong — he of Peep Show, The Thick of It, Black Mirror — it starts off as a workplace comedy-drama played for wry laughs, but shifts to something extremely powerful mid-season. There are echoes of the real-life drama at the heart of the Murdoch family, but it also seems particularly apt in light of American's first family being the Trumps, and the kind of odd family dynamics that evolve from amassing so much wealth and power. It is truly a wonderful piece of television, and I'm actually watching the season a second time to look out for the beautiful little details I missed the first time around. #TeamCousinGreg #Connor2020

A Damn Fine Book

Every Man a Menace

I'll just leave you with the back cover description of this excellent book by Patrick Hoffman. It really is as fun as this makes it sound. 

"Patrick Hoffman burst onto the crime fiction scene with The White Van, a bank heist thriller set in the back streets of San Francisco and a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. Now he returns with his second novel, Every Man a Menace, the inside story of a ruthless ecstasy-smuggling ring.

San Francisco is about to receive the biggest delivery of MDMA to hit the West Coast in years. Raymond Gaspar, just out of prison, is sent to the city to check in on the increasingly erratic dealer expected to take care of distribution. In Miami, the man responsible for getting the drugs across the Pacific has just met the girl of his dreams - a woman who can't seem to keep her story straight. And thousands of miles away in Bangkok, someone farther up the supply chain is about to make a phone call that will put all their lives at risk. Stretching from the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia to the Golden Gate of San Francisco, Every Man a Menace offers an unflinching account of the making, moving, and selling of the drug known as Molly - pure happiness sold by the brick, brought to market by bloodshed and betrayal."

Brilliant Arab Noir Cinema

The Nile Hilton Incident

I've been meaning to watch this for a while, but it had a very limited release in the UK. Which is a crime in and of itself. Helmed my Swedish-Egyptian director Tarek Saleh, and staring Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares as a Cairo police officer investigating the murder of a famous club singer at the Nile Hilton Hotel, it has earned deserved comparisons to the classic of the Noir genre, Chinatown. Set against the backdrop of the Tahrir Square protests, it follows the investigation into the seedier, more corrupt sides of power in Egypt, and seems to say that as much as we might think things are changing, very little actually does. 

The Best Long Reads (with audio options) 

The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis – podcast (THE GUARDIAN)

"Snowflake students have become the target of a new rightwing crusade. But exaggerated claims of censorship reveal a deeper anxiety at the core of modern conservatism." 

This podcast should be required listening for anyone who feels like we've reached some sort of intractable stage in the culture war-driven schism between Left and Right. I think it's an interesting companion piece to a book I recommended a while back, Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies. It's focussed on UK politics — such as the recent Free Tommy marches — but is ultimately about something more universal, with a strong focus on campus no-platforming. 

The man who captures criminals for the d.e.a. by playing them (The NEw Yorker)

This is just an epic piece of journalism by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at The New Yorker. It follows Spyros Enotiades, a Cypriot actor for hire who specializes in the role of cartel boss, middleman, or money manager in sting operations. The piece goes into great detail about some of his elaborate stings, his larger than life character, and a couple of close calls. It also takes a look at what happens to someone who has led this life when they try to leave it behind for a more simple existence. And whether that is even possible. 

The Most Interesting Podcast

Slow burn Season 2: The Clinton Impeachment (Slate)

It is so easy to see the current state of global politics, and US politics in particular because it is the loudest globally, as something utterly unique to our era. Presentist bias, seeing the world exclusively through the lens of the present, is both overwhelming and ahistorical. So it's interesting to listen to this deep dive into the events surrounding the Clinton impeachment and the Ken Starr investigation to realize that what is now amplified by Twitter as a kind of constant shitstorm of anxiety, is not unprecedented. It's also interesting to reevaluate responses to the Clinton affair and see quite how wrong a lot of liberals got it back then. 

Listen here. 

A Couple of Things I Wrote Recently

Have we reached Peak True Crime?

Watching The Staircase got me thinking about where we are at in terms of consuming stories about true crime in the wider culture. So I wrote a piece about it for Little White Lies. 

The State of podcasts in The Arab World

I decided to combine two things dear to me, Arab creators and podcasts, to write this piece for Arab News. I got to speak to some of the region's most exciting podcast hosts and producers, and came away very hopeful for the future of the form in the Arab world. 

In loving memory of Margo, the best damn cat to have ever lived. by Nasri Atallah

To have met Margo is to have loved Margo. When we adopted her in Beirut, the volunteers at the shelter tried jokingly to convince us to pick another cat. They were so in love with her they couldn’t bear to see her go. We promised them to send updates from her life in Beirut and later in London. She has a special place in the hearts of the dozens of our friends who have met her, and the hundreds who have followed her stories on social media. And it is impossible to express the role she has played in Nour’s life, and my life, and in our life as a couple. The world is an emptier place for having said goodbye to her this morning.

The pitter patter of her feet rushing to the door to greet as we unlocked every day, the way she shoved her face into my hand or my cheek when she was feeling loving, the way she kneaded on Nour every morning, the way she curled up between us in winter to sleep. I have no idea how we will cope without these beautiful moments in our life.

A month ago we found out Margo had congestive heart failure. Her breathing had become laboured and we had to rush her to the vet for two days of procedures and stablization. The outpouring of love we witnessed from friends and family made us realize just how special a creature she was. As if we needed reminding. As she emerged from the hospital, we were told we could have a week, a month, a year with her. It was heartbreaking. She was only 3. She was supposed to be with us for 15, 16, 17 more years. Over the past month we have rushed back and forth to the vet and increased her medication progressively. As of this week she was on 4 medications, 6.5 pills a day, 4 times a day. So much to bear for her tiny little heart and kidneys. Finally during the night last night her body stopped responding to medication. Her breathing was at an unbearable rate, and the liquid was returning to her lungs. Nour stayed on the phone all night with the vets, and this morning she took her in to do the only humane thing we could do. The vets said she is beyond being able to care for. They said it is a miracle she lasted a month given how acute her heart failure was. She's was a fighter, a resilient Lebanese cat. I am abroad and Nour had to go through with this final moment alone. I will never forgive myself for not having been there for them.

Margo was with Nour and I since the beginning of our marriage. She was a permanent fixture in our first home together in Beirut and, when we moved, our second home together in London. When the world seemed like it was falling apart, Margo coming to sit next to us on the sofa to watch something funny on TV made it feel like everything would be alright in the end.

She has given us more than we could ever give her. She helped me through periods of crippling anxiety. As my first ever pet, she made me empathize with the natural world in a way I never had before.

We loved her so much, our hearts shattered when we heard her diagnosis for the first time. They shattered when we came home and it was empty of her. They have shattered a million times since, and each piece continues to shatter. In the coming weeks we will come across her white hairs everywhere. It used to annoy us sometimes, but in the last month we came to treasure the marks she left on our lives. Her phantom presence will be unbearable.

We want to thank Sheldon, Varan, Annika and everyone who cared for her during this difficult month at Village Vet Highgate and the Village Vet Hospital in Hampstead. They are compassionate animal-lovers and walked us through this horrible time with care and empathy. They made sure Margo’s last days were as painless and humane as possible. And I want to thank our insurance company Petplan, who repaid — quickly and without questions — the thousands of pounds it cost to give Margo this extra month with us. And I want to thank Animals Lebanon for bringing her into our life, and for following up so many times about how she was getting along in London. We will be making a donation in Margo’s honour, and I hope to find a way to work much more with them from now on.

And most of all, we want to thank Margo for shining a bright light into our lives for every moment she was with us.

We love you Margo. We will miss you always.

 

Margo (2015 - 2018)

The Bullet List #29: Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy Edition by Nasri Atallah

You can subscribe to The Bullet List newsletter on TinyLetter here

Hey everyone,

I hope you’ve had a great couple of months since the last list. There are 120 of you who have signed up for these newsletters, and I appreciate the lovely words of encouragement you send through. I’m pretty sure this little compendium of recommendations doesn’t need one of those excruciating GDPR emails, but in case you don’t subscribe to this intentionally, I’ll be sad to see you go but you should probably unsubscribe. You can do that at the bottom of this email. Now, onto the recommendations

Podcast

The New York Times’ Caliphate

The Times’ Rukmini Callimachi has done some pretty amazing reporting from ISIS-controlled territory in the past, and you might have seen her recent piece in April (Extreme Brutality and Detailed Record-Keeping) about the organization’s bureaucratic hold on the people under its heel. In this podcast, she unpacks how people end up joining the terrorist group, through extensive interviews with a returned fighter and on the ground reporting in Mosul. It’s the NYT’s first narrative podcast, and has a lot of the audio cues that make Serial or This American Life fan favourites. Perhaps too many of those cues, such as the ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ of the earnest public radio host. But overall it is a fascinating document of both what has happened in Syria and Iraq over the past few years, and of the painstaking work of contemporary journalism, that has been so undermined recently. This is as non-fake as it comes.

Article

How an Aspiring ‘It’ Girl Tricked New York’s Party People — and Its Bank

This brilliant piece of reporting by The Cut’s Jessica Pressler is absolutely wild. It follows the weird and wonderful life of Anna Delvey as she becomes a fixture on the New York/London/Dubai/etc trust fund-kid scene. She’s part of that set of people who follow the party around the world — from Art Basel to Burning Man — convinced that it’s actually the party that’s following them. She interns at the right magazines, makes the right friends, decides to start an art foundation, Instagrams herself on yachts. But no one can figure out exactly who she is. Or where her money comes from. As she starts to ask more and more people to help her out with bills and as her tangle of lies unfolds, this story takes some breathtaking turns and lands in some very The Impostor territory.

TV

The Good Fight

This one’s simple: I think The Good Fight is best show on TV right now. Well, technically it’s on CBS All Access, which is the network’s somewhat odd play in the streaming space. But find this show and watch it (you can do that on All 4 and Amazon Prime in the UK). It follows Diane Lockhart (the glorious, imperious Christine Baranski) from the show’s predecessor, The Good Wife, as her life is falling about on the cusp of retirement, due to the shenanigans of a Bernie Madoff-like ponzi schemer and friend. The show is stylish, intelligent, fun, funny, sharply written and observed, and feels so alive with all of its torn-from-the-headlines plotlines. Also, it is the most cathartic of Trump-era cultural products, confronting his presidency head-on, kicking asses and taking names. Read this piece by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker if you’re still unconvinced.

YouTube Show

Cobra Kai

Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy. The motto of the evil dojo Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid movies. Why am I mentioning this in 2018? Well, it’s the reboot no one was clamouring for. The Karate Kid Saga continues. And somehow, by some weird alignment of the stars, it is actually quite excellent. Far more excellent than it has any right to be. We meet up with Danny Larusso & Johnny Lawrence 34 years after the fateful events of the All Valley Under 18 tournament. (Was it an illegal kick? Was shouting about body bags necessary?). Danny is now, predictably, a massive douchebag who runs a very successful car dealership. Johnny wakes up surrounded by cans of Coors and gets shouted at while he does odd jobs for suburban assholes, then he gets to in his Pontiac Firebird and hates his life. This series is as much about the disillusionment of middle age as it is about fun karate stuff. And William Zabka can act! It’s a YouTube Red original, which means you either need to subscribe or buy individual episodes (which is what I am, again, inexplicably doing). You can watch the first two for free, here.

Documentary

Explained

Vox brings its brand of enlightening explainer videos to Netflix with a new weekly show called, rather predictably, Explained. There are four 18 minute episodes up so far, and they do a great job of going quite deep on subjects in a short time. It’s a welcome addition to the mix of docs on Netflix, joining features and fascinating six-parters. So far Monogamy and K-Pop have been my favourites.

Some Stuff I’ve Been Up To Recently

I recently wrote an essay for the Monocle Travel Guide to Beirut and the lovely people at Monocle asked me to read it for their On Design podcast, which you can listen to here. I also recently wrapped up filming of a pilot for a documentary series I’m hosting and co-developing with Montreal’s Noble Television. Can’t say much more than that yet, but there’ll be some updates in the next couple of months. I’ve also submitted my novel synopsis and extract to the Faber Academy anthology and will be reading in front of 50 of London’s top literary agents in 3 weeks time. So that’s not terrifying at all. Oh, and I’m trying something new on my Instagram stories where I highlight a photographer I really enjoy once a week with a dozen of their photos. So follow me here, if that sounds interesting.

Music

Khruangbin's Friday Morning. Watch the video here.

That's all for now.

N

 

The Bullet List #28: East Texas Crime, Flint Police, ISIS Media Hacking, Pop Culture Excellence and The Wire Nostalgia Edition by Nasri Atallah

Hey everyone,

It’s a quick one this time. One crime show, one documentary, two articles and a podcast. Should keep you busy for a couple of weeks.
If you’ve got anything you think I should see or read, please send it my way on the Twitter https://twitter.com/NasriAtallah

Nasri

Hap & Leonard (Sundance TV)

Vox recently referred to this show on Sundance TV as “one of TV’s best-kept secrets” and I agree. It is woefully underrated, and I’m happy I came across it by chance while flicking through Amazon Prime’s video offering.  The show is based on a series of crime novels written by Joe Lansdale, set in late 1980s East Texas. Each season adapts a new novel in which best buds Hap (James Purefoy, who you might know from Rome or Altered Carbon) and Leonard (Michael K. Williams, who you definitely know from The Wire) unpack the darker side of America: seedy deals gone wrong, Vietnam War hangovers, and racial tension. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but the chemistry between the leads is enough to keep you going, and the swampy mysticism of East Texas is just perfect. The third season is a couple of episodes in.

Flint Town (Netflix)

Watching the state of American policing from abroad is a bit bewildering, and it can be hard to understand just how the system got so broken. That’s why this 8-part Netflix Original following the officers who police the city of Flint, Michigan (pop. 100,000) makes for fascinating viewing. It follows individuals in one of the most understaffed (just 98 cops for the whole city) and underpaid departments in the US, on their beats and in their homes. It provides intimate portraits of cops, and some insights into their political views as individuals, and digs into the structural problems around race, as well as funding and militarization.

How ISIS & Russia Manufactured Crowds on Social Media (Wired)

The antics of the Internet Research Agency are now common knowledge and feature in panicked accounts of the shifting theatre of global warfare all over the media. But the manipulation and weaponization of social media was spearheaded by a different group altogether, ISIS. This short piece in Wired gives a great insight into ‘media hacking’.

Unpopped (BBC Podcasts)

I’m a sucker for a pop culture podcast, and recently almost had a heart attack when someone on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour took a dig at someone from Slate’s Culture Gabfest. I realize that getting palpitations when your favourite podcasts collide is a particularly sad form of pop culture nerdom, but anyway what I’m saying is, I love these things. And Unpopped from the BBC (which seems to be a standalone podcast and part of a new strategy by the Beeb to move away from The Archers) is welcome addition to my podcast diet. It takes an in-depth panel-driven look into a pop culture phenomenon (so far: drag queen culture, David Lynch, the Spice Girls and Tomb Raider) which is essentially the opposite of every half-baked Twitter hot-take you’ve ever read. Host Hayley Campbell is excellent (she’s also an excellent writer and a hilarious Twiterrer)

Omar Comin’! The Wire’s Creators and Stars Remember the Birth of an Icon

It’s been 10 years since the last episode of The Wire aired, and since one dose of Michael K. Williams wasn’t enough for this Bullet List, here’s an excellent oral history of how one of the most iconic characters in TV history came about. Omar comin’!

The Bullet List #27: Put Kendrick Lamar in Charge of Everything Edition by Nasri Atallah

Told you these would be coming through more regularly, so here we are again. Trying to keep these lean and mean (not sure what that even means) so I can do more of them. Oh, and by the way, if you're enjoying these Bullet Lists, tell your friends to sign up (they can do that here). And thank you for all the emails saying you find the recommendations useful and pushing me to do the podcast. I'm planning on recording a pilot episode in the next two weeks. Stay tuned. Or subscribed. You know what I mean. Onto the recommendations.

Film

THE BIG SICK

This is hardly an under-the-radar recommendation given that the film has a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score and grossed USD 55 million on a budget of USD 5 million. It was one of the most successful indie films of the year, and its writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Despite taking the massive risk of having one of its characters in a coma for the entire second act, it is such a funny and tender film. As always with this kind of highly personal story, the cast of both sets of parents is particularly brilliant. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime (and was made by Amazon Studios, who seem to have figured out how to make breakout hits after years of tinkering with niche subjects).

Music

THE BLACK PANTHER SOUNDTRACK

Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, SZA, Anderson .Paak, James Blake, Travis Scott, Sjava, Mozzy, Reason. I mean I could go on, but do I really need to? One of the most powerful soundtracks in a while comes from one of the most powerful films of the superhero franchise era. Curated by Kendrick Lamar (who should be in charge of everything) and featuring his label mates from Top Dawg, the album delivers on its promise. Everything about Black Panther has been so powerful. I can’t use another word. Even the photos from the red carpet premiere.

Article

INSIDE THE TWO YEARS THE SHOOK FACEBOOK — AND THE WORLD

Chances are you’re one of the 2.3 billion people who have a Facebook profile, and chances are you’ve noticed things have been a bit rough for the tech (media?) giant for the past year or two. This sprawling and exquisitely reported piece (they spoke to 51 people involved with the company) about the technical, ethical and philosophical challenges facing Zuckerberg and his team is required reading. In many ways, Facebook is the internet for a lot of people, so understanding its limitations and vulnerability to abuse is an important part of our digital literacy. Also this kind of journalism is exactly the kind of thing we need to keep alive in the platform era, and the issue's cover is pure art.

Newsletter

THE HUSTLE

Business news can be pretty stale, but having worked in banking, energy, advertising and tech (I know, all the evil industries, they look almost comical next to each other on my cv) I like keeping up with what’s going on in that world even though I’m out of it and have cleansed my soul. Well, The Hustle is the answer. It is very sharply written, often hilarious, and always insightful. Kind of like Prof Galloway from the recommendation in The Bullet List #26, but in writing. Subscribe, you’ll be entertained and you’ll be able to drop some knowledge about IPOs and shit at the next dinner with your friends. I mean, they’ll probably turn away from you and roll their eyes, but still.


Book

STREETS OF DARKNESS by AA DHAND

I'm recommending this again. It isn’t every day that you get a Bradford-based crime story, but AA Dhand’s changed that in the past couple of years. This is the first of his DI Harry Virdee stories and sees the hardened (and suspended) detective tasked with maintaining the city’s fragile ethnic balance. Problem is, to do so he has to team up with the former leader of the BNP. As a riot brews, Harry’s got to act quickly, and at the edges of the law. It’s a great read. I hope to join the ranks of crime writers plonking exciting stories down into places no one’s really bothered with before.

The Bullet List #26: The New Chapter Edition by Nasri Atallah

Welcome to the first Bullet List of 2018. I’ll have more time to focus on these from now on. I’ve recently decided 13 years of corporate employment was enough, and January has been my first month as a full time writer and creative. It’s terrifying, it’s confusing, but it’s pretty damn exciting. Current projects include the crime novel I’m working on at Faber Academy, for which I’m aiming to finish the first draft by April (please hold me accountable for that). I’m also writing more opinion journalism, dabbling in screenwriting, working on a documentary pitch, and I’m taking a more active role in my wife’s clothes brand. So, on to this edition's list of pop culture recommendations.

Something I Wrote

Speaking of personal projects, here’s something I wrote for UK film magazine Little White Lies about the disastrous trailer for Beirut. Somewhat dishearteningly it seems to have been getting some positive reviews at Sundance, but I’m not holding out much hope that it will be a fair representation of the complexities of Beirut in 1982. And I still think that it’s a waste of a brilliant film title.

YouTube Channel

L2 Inc’s Winners and Losers with Professor Scott Galloway. Now, before you despair at the recommendation of a channel dedicated to analyzing trends in the tech industry, hear me out. First of all, Galloway is a hilarious host. His deadpan delivery and occasional wig-wearing are worth the sub on their own. But he also has very insightful takes on an industry that dominates all of our lives, more than any other industry really. And he advocates for breaking up the four horsemen of big tech, so there’s something compelling about his approach to the industry. It's an interesting 3 or 4 minute breakdown of trends, what they mean for the economy, and for our lives as consumers.

Book

Being on a writing course, I have honestly never read as much as I have in the past four months. But I don’t want to make this list ridiculous. I’ll just say you should definitely pick up Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, who came in and spoke to us about her process. Also, if you’re looking for a kick up the ass writing-wise, pick up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. And for some great Bradford-based crime fiction pick up A.A. Dhand’s Streets of Darkness, which has been compared to Luther and The Wire.

TV Shows

OK, I know this isn’t prestige TV (and I’ve said before I’ve got a bit of prestige TV fatigue) but I've been enjoying going back through 4 seasons of Brooklyn Nine Nine. There is something so wonderful about a fun, lighthearted, hilarious ensemble comedy that’s delivered in short episodes that reminds you that TV doesn’t have to be grim and foreboding and delivered in hour-long chunks. It's also the kind of TV that can just fill up space while you're ironing or doing dishes.

Speaking of prestige TV, I have a semi-recommendation for a show that don’t stick the landing. Ozark, Netflix’s Breaking Bad, which I finally got around to watching a year after everyone else. I don’t think that’s a very fair comparison though, because Bateman’s character is already broken and bad when we meet him. It’s really quite fun and moves so quickly, packing a ton of action into every episode, until it all crumbles around the flashback episode (7, I think). Still, it’s a fun ride, and you should give it a shot.

Podcast

James Altucher spoke to my good friend Mike Van Cleave for his massively popular podcast. It’s a tough (but wonderful and enlightening) listen. See, Mike was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live a couple of years ago. Yeah, Mike’s not the kind of guy to leave this place while there’s still good parties and conversation to be had. So he's stuck around, and he's learned a lot. He is an inspiration, and I don’t use the word lightly. And this podcast will let you in on why he’s such a special friend. Turns out life advice from a dead guy is a best kind there is. If you click on one thing in this newsletter, make it this.

Another –– very, very different –– podcast I really enjoyed recently is Citations Needed. It explores the intersection of media, PR and power. The episode that got me into it was the one on Trumpwashing. The notion being peddled by the conservative and neoliberal establishment that somehow Trump is an abhorrent anomaly in the US political system, rather than it’s very id.

Newsletter

Quartz Obsession. I know it might seem weird to recommend a newsletter in a newsletter, but Quartz Obsession is absolutely great. Every day at 4pm you get a ridiculously detailed and interesting deep dive into one topic. The newsletter features content snippets like charts, statistics, videos cards, text, quizzes, quotes, timelines or polls. According to Jessanne Collins, editor of Quartz Obsession, “There’s a sense of news-cycle fatigue, which can offer an important gap for media products to fill. There’s a hunger for smart, relevant, interesting coverage that’s not regurgitated and not the same news day to day.” Sounds great, right? There are only so many articles you can read analyzing a Trump tweet. Treat yourself to something interesting in your inbox everyday. Oh, and one more thing, I’m finding carefully picked newsletters to be a great antidote to social media fatigue. I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything and I don’t have to be glued to Facebook and Twitter all day. Win-win.

An Idea I Want to Run By You

So I've been thinking about this for while, but I'd love to turn this list into a podcast. "Sounds amazing but how?" I hope you're asking. Well, I thought I could have bi-weekly chats with guests (writers, designers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, etc) and ask them to bring in their top pop culture recommendations and use those as a way into discussing their life and career. I'm lucky enough to live in London, know some people in the industries I'm interested in, and get to travel often, so I'd have access to some interesting people I hope. You'd be getting pop culture recommendations and an insight into the mind of someone interesting. Let me know what you think.  

That’s it for now, as always you can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for regular updates.